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Bob Downey

Owner and principal consultant for RED Consulting in Orangevale, Calif., specializing in construction safety.

Bob Downey

With his instantly recognizable baritone, Downey is a leader in construction safety training, and has worked to preserve California's safety history.

Resume: Downey served as an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California in the graduate program in Safety and Systems Management. He is also an instructor in OSHA standards with the University of California, San Diego, OSHA Training Institute.

Schools:  Downey holds a master’s degree from Golden Gate University.

Boards and Commissions: Downey serves on the Cal/OSHA Advisory Committee and is chair of the Cal/OSHA Construction Standards Section at UC San Diego, OSHA Training Institute.

Certifications/Designations:  He is designated a Certified Protection Professional, CPP, the highest professional designation by the American Society for Industrial Security and Certified Safety Professional, the highest professional designation by the American Society of Safety Engineers.

Inspiration:  “State Fund folks are marvelous.”

Favorite Quote:  “And the end is that the workman shall live to enjoy the fruits of his labor; that his mother shall have the comfort of his arm in her age; that his wife shall not be untimely a widow; that his children shall have a father, and that cripples and helpless wrecks, who were once strong men, shall no longer be a by-product of industry.” (P.B. Juhnke, “California Safety News,” January 1917)


What are the top issues in California occupational safety and health today?

The number one has to do with our relationship with federal OSHA folks. We have considerable problems with federal OSHA, and inconsistent application of the rules to California.

California has been involved a long time in safety. In fact, my research takes us back to 1914.

California has contributed significantly to federal OSHA’s role in terms of new regulations and standards and the Feds don’t seem to recognize that. So the relationship between Cal/OSHA and federal OSHA is a significant challenge for our new director of OSHA and for the Department of Industrial Relations.

The second issue that I think is very important is to balance the roles of management and labor. In the state of California, organized labor has had a significant influence on the decisions of the Department of Industrial Relations and the Division of Occupational Safety and Health. To the detriment, I believe, of those in management who are committed to a safe working environment. There has been an adversarial relationship that I think needs to be removed. That is a real challenge for the division and for all players who participate.

Then the third issue is our new director is a health hazards person. While health hazards are significant, there are still issues with the other basic compliance elements. We need to get more people in the field to look at people who are scofflaws and not necessarily focus on those who are more visible. I would also like the division to work with construction organizations like mine to assist in their training to be more effective.


Injury and illness rates continue to decrease, with some exceptions. What's the next great leap forward in occupational safety and health?

The real challenge we have as safety practitioners is to change the mind-set of employees. I am humbled every day in my research about safety activities in California of the practices of the average safety guy, whether he’s a safety representative or an independent consultant like I am, or a company representative. The things that we do and recommend to our management: incentive programs, training, inspections, audits, discipline, have all been tried. They are over a century old. As a result, the challenge that we are faced with is to change attitudes and performance so that everyone considers safety as an integral part of their jobs. It is not just a set of regulations from the outside that says you have to do this, or you have to do that, only when someone is looking. So changing minds, changing attitudes and changing performance.

I have a contemporary who refers to his safety programs as selfish safety. Selfish safety basically says, when I do a job I need to think about me, not necessarily about the job itself, but about me. What is important about my safety in this task, to assure that we accomplish the job, on time, on budget and without injury to anybody.

We don’t rely on only tried and true experience, but take the next step beyond that, that says there is another breakthrough way to deal with our employees and our safety exposure.


One group -- Hispanics/Latinos -- suffers a disproportionate number of injuries and illnesses. Why? How should California address this problem?

I am a Spanish speaker. I’m reasonably fluent in the language. I do teach OSHA 10 and OSHA 30 classes to Spanish-speaking employees. There are some very interesting statistics that relate to Spanish-speaking individuals. One of those statistics relates to the inordinate number of accidents that occur to them. The statistic relates to who these individuals are. Individuals who were born and raised in the United States but speak Spanish are not as impacted as those born outside the U.S. and who come to work here.

The problem seems to be not necessarily that they only speak Spanish. There are colloquial references that don’t mean the same thing to an individual raised outside the United States as they do to someone raised inside the United States.

I’ll give you an example. If I ask a group of Spanish-speaking guys who were raised in the United States, how do you warn someone to be careful? They will use the word “cuidado,” or use the word “ojo,” as in “watch out.” But Mexican individuals may use a term “aguas,” as in “the water,” to warn others of an imminent danger. “Aguas” is a term that is typically unknown to the average American. But it is a peculiar reference that I remember from when I lived in Mexico in my 20s. You’d be hard-pressed to understand the meaning unless you understood that if you were standing under the windows of a young woman who had reached age 15. Her father gets angry and wants to dump the chamberpot on the kids who are down below. So “aguas” becomes an important element. You better watch out and get outta here. It is just an interesting term that came up in my training that there are certain colloquial terms that people don’t understand. Much as with signaling people in our new crane regulations, assuring people understand the words and terms that will be used are very important.

There is a second issue related to training and it is simply this: So many people are illiterate, not a criticism, simply a statement of fact. They are illiterate whether it is English or Spanish. We can train all day and our methods of training and testing are written documents. If we use that only as our basis of validating that people got the message, we’re going to lose. We need to be much more attentive to the needs of the Spanish-speaking community. And to really drill down with them to help them understand.

The third issue, that I see all the time. Coming from a different culture and coming from a different performance expectation, we see them using tools, equipment, ladders, scaffolding, other materials in a totally different way. It is poorly designed, poorly set up equipment because that’s what they are used to. We cannot, as we often do with our English-speaking employees, or with employees who have been in the United States a long period of time, presume that these guys and ladies as well know what the OSHA rules are and know what the proper setup of a scaffold or other method for gaining access to heights should be.


The Injury and Illness Prevention Program is the basic safety requirement for California employers. Now Fed-OSHA is working toward adopting its version of this requirement. Does the California IIPP standard need revision or is it fine the way it is? And if it needs revision, how so?

My opinion is: It is fine the way it is. If it is used as it is intended. It is interesting that the Feds are considering implementing the I2/P2 Program, when in reality there is already a compliance directive, that says for federal OSHA people to evaluate safety programs. They should review certain basic elements, which happen to be the same basic elements that are in the Injury and Illness Prevention Program standard that were adopted in 1990 by Cal/OSHA.

Does it need an update? No, I don’t think so. It covers the basic elements that are necessary for an effective safety program if implemented properly. What I am still surprised at, and this is where OSHA can be much more effective particularly in the construction business, there are still employers who in spite of having a requirement that has been in place for more than 20 years, still do not have a written injury and illness prevention program. So outreach is huge. They can do outreach through the contractors’ state license board. Unlike other states, California has no requirement for additional safety training for contractors. The State of Florida does. If you want to renew your license, you better have some safety training. That is a way to deal with some of those issues. One of them being: having an effective Illness and Injury Prevention Program.


If you could change anything about Cal/OSHA, what would it be?
                a. Should enforcement be increased?
                b. Communications
                c. Training for inspectors
There are several things. Let’s start with inspector training. I work with the Construction Employers Association. That’s the group that I represent on the Cal/OSHA Advisory Committee. It is a committee of appointed individuals by the director of OSHA, who represent different organizations. Associated General Contractors is there. Certain OSHA training institutes, union representatives from Operating Engineers, from labor, building trades, maritime people, different organizations are all represented there. There are probably 30 or more people there.

I represent CEA. CEA is the Construction Employers Association. The association has offered on a regular and continuing basis to allow OSHA compliance representatives to come to our construction jobsites and look at the process of construction. Many of the safety representatives have limited construction safety experience. Their specific task that they do not see frequently are high structural steel, structural ironwork for very tall buildings, is often not something that a safety rep would see. Concrete tilt-up is another area. Deep excavations are all issues that they need to be familiar with so they can understand how the regulations are written. And what their meaning is. It is a question of understanding the meaning. We can all read the regs, but we don’t necessarily know what the item means in terms of sequencing and when a particular standard applies. I want the division to avail [itself] of that opportunity to help [its] people be more effective in compliance inspections and also in response to incidents and accidents.

Their whole training cycle has been reworked at the request of the Feds. They need to continue that training to assure better understanding of standards and requirements that are written in the regs. They are very complex. Having taught those regs for quite a number of years, I realize how difficult it is to find certain things. So training is one issue.

The second issue that I want the division to deal with is the use of personnel. For years, I requested that a change be made to the labor code where OSHA is required to respond to legitimate complaints of employees on jobsites where there are safety hazards. It has, at least in my opinion, been the position of the division that when a legitimate complaint comes in, a representative of the division must respond to the complaint, and many are on construction projects. And yet when we do that, the results of those complaint inspections produce the fewest number of serious violations of the OSHA standard.

So the question then becomes: Is this process as dictated by the labor code and effective use of scant resources? The answer in my mind is no. Last year the division established an initiative to try to change the way they respond to complaints. I would urge the division to continue that process to try to use their personnel much more effectively in response to complaints and to relieve them of some of that response burden so they can use their compliance people to get to those who are truly violating the laws without regard to their employees or the public.

It may not require a change to the labor code, but it certainly appears to me that it does. We have some anecdotal information I’ll share. The most frequently cited complaint-based inspection? That the toilet facility is not clean. My construction employees will work 60 feet in the air without fall protection but will complain that the toilet facilities are not maintained. It seems a little out of kilter with real exposures. But that unfortunately is a reality.

There is a third item. We discussed this at the Cal/OSHA Advisory Committee, that is to use the representatives on the advisory committee to assist the division in planning and designing regulations. Help them in enforcement. Help them, not in performing the enforcement, but help them in using their personnel. This advisory committee now seems more like a forum for discussion rather than a tool to assist the division to improve overall performance and help the employees of California.


Some observers say injury and illness rates are higher than they appear because employers find ways to hide injuries, or not record them. Do you agree this is a serious problem and if so, how should it be addressed?

That is out of my knowledge area. I will make a comment on it because I think it is an important issue. Number one, in the United States accident statistics have been maintained since the early part of the last century. It is a measurement of how good we are in terms of safety and how well we manage an exposure within all industries, whether it is manufacturing or construction or whatever. The problem with this hidden information is that there is no honest evaluation on whether we are improving or not. Sadly, our owners, the people we work with, who evaluate contractors or evaluate suppliers, are looking at those statistics and saying, “Where do you sit, Mr. Contractor, in relation to the average employer in your SIC code or NICS code now used for classifying different activities and organizations? We don’t want to use you unless your statistics are 25% below the national average.” Well, if the stats for the national average are skewed, there is a challenge for everybody to control their numbers so they get work.

It is a competitive issue. You can understand why there might be a concern that those numbers are not legitimate. And people are trying to hide things. My concern, and this goes back to my original question, how we deal with changes in attitude and performance of employees on the jobsite, making them responsible for safety.

We don’t want to evaluate the past. Where do you sit in relation to this national average, which is over a year old? But better, what are you doing daily to assure positive response and protection of employees? Are you doing your tailgates? Are you investigating near misses? Are you taking suggestions from your employees and doing something about them? Are you involving all of your employees in job hazard analysis? And helping to develop the steps and processes and tools that will protect employees as they go through their daily tasks? Are you spending those few minutes to look into your employees’ eyes and assure that they are okay, 100%, that they are there? They are not impaired by drugs. They are not impaired by alcohol. And other influences are not taking them away from the attention they need to do their jobs. How do we evaluate that? That is a challenge that statistics don’t do for us. It is a challenge that says, “Okay, Mr. Perfect Employer, tell me as the owner what are you doing step-by-step, day-by-day to protect your employee and not just rely on something in the past?”


California  has a long history of crafting groundbreaking regulations that the rest of the country eventually picks up. What's the next one?

That’s probably the toughest one. I can’t read people’s minds regarding regulation and standards. I would imagine our health exposures will be a significant issue. That is where our new Director Ellen Widess is coming from, what her background is. So we may certainly see some health-related issues. We have already done that in our health advisory committee dealing with permissible-exposure limits. So that will probably be expanded. It is difficult to assess what will occur. 


Will AB 2774 resolve the problems cited by DOSH on serious violations and provide a more equitable appeals system? If not, how should it be reformed?

 No, I disagree with the approach that was taken in 2774. I think this process of classifying serious violation differently to meet the federal standard was ill-advised. But it is the law. It is what it is now. I think the knowledgeable employers will not respond to the notice from OSHA that says we think you should be cited for a serious violation, tell us why you don’t think so. Because their attorneys will tell them this is setting you up. It establishes a different set of standards in appeal. It will increase the number of appeals, I think. It will create a backlog, much like we had over the past few years. I am not sure it will be beneficial to the regulated community or the officials. Only time will tell on that one. But my opinion is not good regarding 2774, regarding the changes.


Should DOSH approach enforcement with more of an eye toward achieving compliance, rather than looking for violations to cite? And if so, would such an approach work?

I don’t think we’ll ever get away from looking for citations or violations to cite. I do believe, and have for a long time, that the voluntary protection program of employers who are willing to go the extra mile than others need to be encouraged. The division needs to cut some slack, which they are trying to do, for employers who are willing to go that extra distance to protect their employees. Reduce the number of inspections, particularly program inspections. Write letters in lieu of physical visits based on complaints. All are good.

OSHA’s resources should be put to that, their consultation resources, so that compliance people can get out and really work to city the scofflaws. Get to those people who are not readily seen. Finding ways to encourage employers to be more effective is essential to the division. 

California does not have an approved state program. We still operate under a tentative approval. One of the sticking points for that initial approval was that statistically the federal government wanted Cal/OSHA to have over 800 compliance personnel based on the number of people in the state, the number of employees, manufacturers, construction companies, etc. Yet the division has only 206 active positions. So you don’t get enough people out in the field to do compliance work, based on the number of inspections and requirements that ought to exist out there. So we have to find ways to extend the capabilities of the division. That means using the resources of those companies and organizations that are willing to go the extra mile to help OSHA and not cut back on voluntary protection programs, Sharp Programs, Golden Gate Programs, all of which are part of the division’s consultation service. Or companies who really want to do better at safety.


What should Cal/OSHA do to help small employers create safe workplaces and comply with Title 8 regulations?

The consultation unit has done a very good job of reaching out to small employers. I applaud their efforts. It is very costly to put those guys in the field, but adding staff would be great, to allow them to do that. I doubt that’s going to happen. But I think that helping consultation to get to those small employers would be very valuable. However the division can do that would be a real benefit to all employers in California.


What about safety do employers struggle with the most?
One of the most difficult of the regulations to comply with is the hazard communication standard for chemicals in the workplace. It is a difficult regulation to comply with. People often do not understand the implications of using particular materials. Material safety data sheets are difficult to read in many instances. So the regulation becomes more of a paperwork exercise. Do I have the inventory? Do I have all the MFDSs? And we lose sight of how we should be communicating information to our employees and how we should be protecting our employees by use of engineering controls, personal protective equipment and other methods of reducing exposure to hazardous material. Certainly, an area that all employers need assistance in is hazard communication, that is, chemicals in the workplace. Making it easier, making it more effective because that’s an issue that will continue to be with us into the future. If we do nothing about the hazard communication program, there will be toxic material in 10, 15 or 20 years where exposures occurred today that are causing serious harm to our employees. That exposure is not acute but is chronic. We won’t know until the results begin to show themselves. We could certainly improve. Everyone can improve in that particular area.


Are there reliable and knowledgeable training people available?

Speaking as an independent consultant who does that for a living, by golly, we are good and we are out there.

You know, that’s a double-edged sword. Yes, I think there are enough guys out there, but what’s funny? Number one, I am a trainer for the University of California at San Diego OSHA training institute. I am also the chair of the Cal/OSHA standards segment for construction, responsible for the training programs that are provided to those who wish to know more about California standards, as opposed to the federal standards. So I teach trainers who wish to conduct OSHA 10- and 30-hour construction, and OSHA 10- and 30-hour general industry classes. I looked at the listing of people who teach 10- and 30-hour classes. And the number of the individuals who are authorized to do that training and who actually conduct that training is much smaller than I anticipated.

I’ve taught hundreds of people. In fact, it totals in the thousands now. Yet the number of authorized instructors, people who have actually presented is 300 or 400. It doesn’t make any sense to me, other than the people took the classes so they could get more familiar with the standards and regulations themselves and are not actually doing the outreach training. It does tell me there are qualified people who do training. There are others who have chosen not to do training. And the quality of training is always a question. How well do we do it? How effectively? How much information do we get out to our employees? Do they implement it? Those are all important questions beyond the question: Are there enough trainers out there to get the word out to employers?


What kind of training is the most crucial for employers to provide?

When we look at how crucial training needs to be, we have to step back and do a risk assessment. The first risk assessment says for construction, somewhere between 35% and 50% of all fatalities that occur on construction sites occur from falls from elevation. So if you take that statistic and say, “What should I do?” -- the answer is real clear; fall protection training is essential to any construction company’s operation. You have the same stats in general industry, yes, but not falls from elevation, but slips, trips and falls in a manufacturing environment are a contributor to both the fatalities and lost-time injuries. That focus is clearly there. There are three other elements that lead to serious injuries and fatalities: electrical exposures, struck-by conditions and caught-in-between conditions. Those four elements (falls, electrical, struck-by and caught-in-between) are the federal OSHA training focus, called the Focus Four, because more than 80% of all fatalities and serious injuries come from those four basic elements.

If a company is going to do training, fall exposure is the first element they want to do. Electrical exposure is second. And those exposures related to struck-by, like heavy equipment operation, and caught-in-between, like excavation, are the elements that are essential to assure primary protection of employees through effective training.

Every employer needs to look at what they do on a daily basis and deal with the technical aspects of their work, to assure their employees understand what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, the tools they’re using and how to protect themselves.


What else do you read to get your occupational safety and health information?

The American Society Safety Engineers professional safety magazine is a good resource. The federal OSHA website is extremely good in terms of new information that is put out. The National Safety Council is a good resource. Our suppliers and vendors also provide excellent information to assist us in performing our safety roles.

How did you get started in safety? Was there any particular experience in your career that triggered your interest in safety? What’s interesting about it? What’s interesting about it now?

I actually started in the loss control field in the United States Army. After leaving the military service and a couple years in the federal government, I went to work for some manufacturing firms in a role as a security manager. An ancillary duty was safety. Safety became a much more important element for me. So I have concentrated the majority of my time over the past 25 years on safety. The past 20 years on construction safety in particular. I didn’t do it deliberately. I didn’t fall into it. And I’m not an injured worker.


What’s interesting about it now?

I’ve been doing a little research into the history of safety in California and I have the intention of writing a book. There is a lot of very good information and tremendous contribution that the state of California has made. Seeing the history has humbled me a bit about my contribution to safety. It has also enlightened me a little bit in looking at different ways to approach safety and different ways of impacting management and different ways of interacting with employees and talking to employees. To go beyond the tried-and-true ways of safety issues, of incentives, of training and inspections. It is like trying to inject quality into a job. You can’t do that. The same thing with safety. How do we do it? How do we do it effectively? That’s what keeps me excited. I’m mentoring all kinds of young people who are entering the safety field. Whether they are job safety coordinators as a job assignment because there are carpenters on a job. Whether they are young safety professionals. All of those things keep me active, knowing that we can impact the lives of hundreds, thousands of people, because of those efforts. That’s what keeps me interested.


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